'A Moment in Time' joins the public radio big leagues with national airplay, a six-figure sponsor and a move into new media. All it needs now are callers like you. 

This Magic Two Minutes

Ensign Daniel Roberts scrubbed the steel pots and pans until they shone, or at least glowed under the galley's fluorescents. His work shift was blurring into those of the days before, and the weeks before them, but sailors crave routine, and his life aboard ship had assumed a comfortable though rarely pleasant monotony. Mostly it was hard, hot work in tight quarters — the Navy, more or less. But at least it wasn't home, Richmond, where his career uncertainty had made life with a driven and single-minded father difficult.

Armed Forces Radio cleared its throat over the rumble of dishwashing machines and the sound of water in stainless steel sinks. Another announcer came on, relaying some kind of long-winded history factoid in the earnest, unequivocal and mildly chummy tone of every military broadcast. But this one stopped Ensign Roberts cold.

That voice.

No, it couldn't be.

Damn: It was. Dad.

He turned to a mate. "I've joined the Navy to get away from that voice," he said. "And it's chased me down to the Caribbean."

That voice, Dan Roberts', chortles warmly as he tells the story about his son. And the one about the time he was playing piano in a Washington, D.C., club and was approached by an NPR Morning Edition producer because she thought he might have a nice radio voice. (They thought he did, he says, and Roberts did some on-air commentary. On the road back to Richmond at 2 a.m. one morning, Roberts began dreaming up a two-minute history module: "By the time I got to Ashland it was all mapped out.")

Now "A Moment in Time," the weekday lecture Roberts began broadcasting on public radio here in 1994, is hitting the big time.

Roberts' creation has blossomed from WCVE 88.9-FM to more than 100 stations in the U.S. and the Armed Forces and Voice of America networks overseas. The program is getting its first major infusion of cash to expand that reach to the nation's 400 other public radio affiliates. And "A Moment in Time" is being targeted for spinoff projects in print, film and video.

These are heady days indeed for a guy who until recently got nothing but warm fuzzies for researching, writing and recording the program's 260 installments a year. Roberts, an assistant professor of liberal arts and history at the University of Richmond, says the impetus behind the latest developments is simple: "The university has adopted the program."

With a $150,000 annual guarantee from UR President Bill Cooper, "A Moment in Time" has gone from rag-tag labor of love to fully funded radio phenomenon. Roberts says Dominion Resources has kicked in $50,000, and "we're seeking underwriters all the way to the full amount of the budget." By comparison, he adds, "StarDate," a University of Texas-backed public radio module that is the exemplar of the short format, has an annual budget of about $225,000.

"Everybody who's been making sacrifices up to this point will now be able to realize some tangible benefit, something a little more than a pat on the back," he says, declining to reveal what he and Technical Director Steve Clark will be paid. But the big money mostly will help market the show to more stations — and help UR market itself through them.

Spokeswoman Kim Bolger says "A Moment in Time" is "a magnificent marketing opportunity for the University of Richmond." Sponsoring it positively positions the school to prospective students nationally and leverages the show's "accessible history" quality.

It's also a chance to get in on the ground floor for future projects. Local public relations and marketing consultant Patsy Arnett is helping out on "A Moment in Time" pro bono. "The sweat equity that Dan has invested is just incredible," she says. "Requests for speaking engagements are off the chart," she says, and the show has attracted the interest of television and documentary film producers as well as publishers of children's books and creators of school curricula.

Roberts now worries he'll "end up with egg on my face" if the new projects don't pan out, and he is hesitant to give details, but Arnett says they have been in discussions with Tim Reid at New Millennium Studios in Petersburg.

The school is going all-out to help them succeed. UR will profile Roberts in an upcoming issue of its alumni magazine that includes a reply card for grads to let the school know if and when they hear "A Moment in Time" in their markets. "One of the things we don't know is where it's playing in the country. There's no Arbitron for public radio," Bolger explains, no equivalent to television's Nielsen ratings for determining when and where "A Moment in Time" airs.

That means calling radio station managers and program directors individually and simply asking them if they've been running the show. And that means volunteer callers. "A Moment in Time" still needs them, and needs more of them to continue promoting the show. Bolger says UR will lend its phone bank to the effort. Bob Jones, community outreach and volunteer resources manager at Virginia Public Broadcasting, says six Richmonders have committed to the effort after hearing on-air requests for volunteers, "and that's pretty good for something like that."

Roberts says he needs about a dozen more to help with quarterly mailings and other odd jobs, especially stuffing compact discs into envelopes each month when the program transitions from satellite-feed to CD distribution later this year. "This will substantially increase our coverage because stations find the CDs easier to use," he says.

The impending change prompts another anecdote. "I would go to the public radio conferences and they would stick me in the corner somewhere, and I would give away cassettes of 'A Moment in Time' that I made in my living room." (Chortle.) "Now we want to go to the next level of impact, and the support of everyone involved has made that

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